The subject of nuclear weapons came up again this week, but instead of the knee-jerk religious left, it was the Vatican that was condemning not only the use but the possession of said armaments. According to Thomas Reese, writing in the Washington Post:

At the forums, the nuncio [to the UN, Archbishop Celestino Migliore] laid out the moral case against nuclear weapons. In the past the use of nuclear weapons was condemned by the church, he said, but nuclear deterrence was granted conditional acceptance during the Cold War.

It was always difficult for the church to accept deterrence. Both conservative and liberal moralists asked: How can it be moral to threaten to do something that is immoral?

That’s an excellent question, and it goes to the question of intention. Look at it this way: let’s say I throw myself in front of a speeding bus and get killed. Nothing prompted me to do so, and when my feet left the ground I knew I was going to die. An immoral act of suicide, right? But how about if there was a child standing in the path of the bus, and I threw myself in front of it intending not to kill myself, but to save the child. Now, what looks like an immoral act becomes an act of heroic self-sacrifice that emulates Christ’s own.

Now, consider the purpose of nuclear deterrence. Is it to use the weapons? Of course not. The purpose–and the intention of the possessors, in the case of the United States–is specifically to prevent their use. The political calculus–of which the Vatican is aware, but increasingly prone to forget–is that as long as the United States holds such weapons, other nations will be dissuaded from using them. It isn’t even necessary to threaten to use them (and in fact American policy, at least until last month, was always to be as vague as possible about whether we would or wouldn’t). The simple fact of possession leaves enough doubt in a potential user’s mind that the purpose of preventing their use is secured.

Acceptance of deterrence was conditioned on 1) the sole use of nuclear weapons for deterrence against nuclear attack, which means renouncing their first use, especially against nonnuclear threats; 2) limiting the number and kinds of weapons to those sufficient for deterrence; 3) moving toward progressive nuclear disarmament.

This is an after-the-fact rationalization. As to the first, throughout the Cold War, the United States never renounced first use as part of its strategy of keeping the Soviets and Chinese guessing, but the Vatican never complained about that. As for the second, this is a prudential military and political judgment that the Vatican was and is incompetent to determine. As for the third, it’s true that Rome has supported disarmament, but that’s always been a utopian goal progress or lack of progress toward which didn’t affect its basic stance of support for the American deterrent.

To the extent that a nation’s nuclear policy strays from these conditions, it would be judged morally problematic. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, but rather than foreswearing first use, nuclear powers have upgraded their weapons to make them more usable.

“Nuclear weapons are no longer just for deterrence but have become entrenched in the military doctrines of the major powers,” Archbishop Migliore said. “A war-fighting strategy using nuclear weapons has been put in place.”

I have no clue what he’s talking about. Every nuclear power has had strategies in place to use their nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances for decades. Migliore makes it sound as if nations have just recently decided that they need to be prepared to fight nuclear wars the way they’ve been prepared to fight conventional wars. What his evidence for that is I couldn’t begin to guess, especially as it pertains to the most nuclear-averse administration ever in the U.S.

While acknowledging that the recent US Nuclear Posture Review “seems to move toward less emphasis on nuclear weapons,” Archbishop Migliore said, “Nevertheless it describes the role of nuclear armament to deter a nuclear attack as fundamental albeit not the sole one.”

I assume that this is about the statement in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review that suggested that the U.S. considers its nuclear force to also be a deterrent to massive chemical and biological attacks. Why this is a problem is beyond me, since the purpose is still to prevent attacks that could kill thousands or even millions of people just as dead as nukes.

Archbishop Migliore told the Woodstock forum audiences, “The conditions that prevailed during the Cold War, which gave a basis for the Church’s limited toleration of nuclear deterrence, no longer apply in a consistent and effective manner.”

“Clearly the conditions for the moral acceptability of deterrence are not being met,” concludes Gerard Powers of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, a leading Catholic thinker on these issues, in the May 17 issue of America.

And what has changed is…what, exactly? Yes, there’s no more Soviet Union. But the possession of nuclear weapons by more and more unstable and/or irresponsible and/or proliferating states would seem to make the continuing possession of such weapons by the grown-ups  an absolute necessity. If Iran, for instance, finally gets The Bomb, is it more or less likely to use it on, say, Israel, if the latter has or doesn’t have their own arsenal? It may be that the mullahs are crazy enough to risk the extinction of the Persian nation by using their’s anyway, but if there is any sanity in Tehran at all, that prospect would tend to make them more cautious than otherwise.

“What the church rejects is the widely held view that nuclear weapons bring security but nuclear disarmament would bring insecurity,” say Powers.

Rome can reject that view if it wants, but it has neither theological nor ethical certainty that it’s own view is correct. Rather, all it has is a political opinion. I see no more reason for policy-makers to put faith in that view than they do in the views of the American religious left.